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Farmers finding the fit for precision agriculture

Western Canadian farmers have a range of views of where and how precision farming technology fits in with their specific farming operations.

Some are quite convinced new technology such as variable rate applications has a fit, some are rethinking the economics of variable rate technology (VRT), and still others have a more cautious wait-and-see, “will this have a benefit on my farm” approach.

And VRT isn’t the only aspect of precision farming. While definitions of precision farming vary and some sound pretty heady — the European based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines it as: “…to adapt field operations to local variations in crop and soil conditions by the use of state of the art technology combined with a knowledge-intensive field management. The goals are an economic viable agriculture production process with low environmental impact.”

In Western Canada, a precision farming resource guide produced by the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) simply states: “Precision agriculture attempts to manage variability within fields.”

Producers contacted for this February Farmer Panel all agree more intensive management of varying field conditions has merit, but there are number of tools and farming practices they can use toward that goal.

Here is what this month’s Farmer Panel had to say about precision farming practices.

James Jackson Dapp, Alta.

James Jackson who farms at Dapp, north of Edmonton, now has about 65 per cent of his grain, oilseed and pulse crops under variable rate fertilizer application and he hopes to bring the rest under VRT over the next couple years.

Jackson who has been phasing in VRT over the past three years, says it has a good fit with his variable soil and field conditions.

“The real appeal to me was to identify and soil test according to the various zones in a field,” says Jackson. “I believe it gives you a more representative sample. And we certainly have a lot of variation on our farm. We may have 10 acres of high organic soils here, and then areas of grey wooded and areas of sandier soils. So developing those zones helps to show that variation very well.”

Working with consultant Colin Bergstrom of Point Forward Solutions based in St. Albert to develop fertilizer prescriptions, Jackson says he may be using more fertilizer than before, but crop yields are responding to the fertilizer.

“We are seeing more even production over a field and more even maturity,” says Jackson. “We are applying more fertilizer than before, but also before with a blanket rate, I had a reached a point where applying more fertilizer didn’t make sense. One thing I like about Point Forward Solutions approach is that we always leave a check strip that receives the old blanket rate of fertilizer, so you can compare the production under variable rate. And what I am seeing every year is that variable rate does provide an economic benefit.”

Jackson says his seeding and fertilizer equipment had capability for variable rate application long before he began using it. One key factor was to find a knowledgeable “techy guy” consultant in his area who could work with him to develop the system.

Jackson has also committed 480 acres of his farm to a three-year trial for a study of controlled traffic farming (CTF). CTF is a system that limits traffic for all field operations to permanent tramlines across a field. For this project, Jackson’s track tractor, seeding equipment, field sprayer and combine all operate on 10-foot wide wheel centres, spaced 30 feet apart. All equipment, including truck traffic, uses the same wheel tracks, assuming that eliminating random wheel traffic over a field will reduce soil compaction and increase production.

“CTF may not be precision farming in the purest sense, but it does help you pick out certain areas of your fields that need attention,” he says. “In one operation or the other you may note, for example, that half way down the tenth tramline there is a patch of weeds, or half way down the fifteenth tramline there’s a low producing area that needs attention. So you can note those problem areas, count off the number of tramlines, find that area and treat it.”

Although it is early in this study being conducted by a farmer-led Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta initiative, Jackson believes the concept has merit. “If you made up a list of the 10 potential benefits of CTF, I believe each year, depending on growing conditions you are going to see some of those benefits,” says Jackson. “In a wet year it might be benefits one, two and three, and in a dry year it might be benefits six, seven and eight. It may not be all 10 benefits every year, but at least some combination.”

Collin Felstad Dapp, Alta.

Another producer in the Dapp area north of Edmonton, Collin Felstad, is considering variable rate fertilizer technology for his 2,600 acre farm, but hasn’t taken the plunge yet.

“We tried variable rate on part of the farm two years ago,” says Felstad. “The concept of making more efficient use of fertilizer in hopes of being more profitable is appealing, but I believe it is also tough to measure.”

For management reasons Felstad didn’t try variable rate fertilizer in 2011, but he may again in the future. He has used GPS and autosteer features on field equipment for several years, and he likes the sectional shut-off feature on his John Deere sprayer.

He says reducing the amount of overlap when spraying crops helps to reduce input costs.

Larry McDougall Langbank,Sask.

Larry McDougall, who crops about 3,700 acres along with his brother near Langbank in southeast Saskatchewan, says he is “cautiously looking” at variable technology but hasn’t made any decisions yet.

“I can see the value in it, but I also know in talking to some farmers it has a few glitches, as well,” says McDougall. “There are three large farms in our area, all good operators, and two of them use it and one doesn’t. So it isn’t necessarily a perfect solution.

“And maybe we are getting to the age too, when we might be thinking of retiring in seven or eight years and is it worth the investment? Our Seed Master seeding equipment can handle it, but we would likely have to upgrade to RTK (real time kinematic satellite navigation — a more accurate guidance system) and that’s an expense, too.”

McDougall has been using GPS and auto steer technology for several years, and he does like the improved efficiency provided by sectional shutoffs on the field sprayer.

“We have a 90-foot sprayer that originally had three sections that shut off, now it is equipped with shut-offs on all five sections,” says McDougall. “The GPS system maps as you go, so when you come along on the next pass to any area you have already sprayed, the system shuts off a section. Overall the sectional shut offs provide a 10 to 15 per cent savings on our herbicide costs. And it is good for the environment too, not to be over-applying.”

Mark McDonald Virden, Man.

Mark McDonald, who along with his father, farms about 4,800 acres of grains and oilseeds and special crops, applies variable rate fertilizer to about half of the farm.

They have been using GPS and auto steer technology for at least 10 years and began introducing variable rate technology about five years ago. He admits the first couple of years were a rocky start as there was a problem getting the technology to work properly and consistently.

“You would get part of a field done and then there would be an equipment failure. It took us until the second season to really get that all sorted out,” he says. Working with consultants such as Farmer’s Edge to develop the fertilizer prescriptions helped. The equipment problems weren’t their issue, but as their knowledge and expertise grew they were able to help McDonald sort out his technical problems.

“Those issues are behind us, but I don’t think I would be involved with VRT without the help of Farmers’ Edge,” he says.

McDonald says even in those first couple of years, when the equipment did work, he could see the benefits of applying more fertilizer to the more productive sites, and less fertilizer to less productive sites. With a Seed Hawk seeding system equipped with a Morris tank they have the option to apply either blanket or variable rate fertilizer.

McDonald says while variable rate can work with all crops, he limits it to crops with higher nitrogen requirements such as canola and sunflowers. He uses it with malt barley as well, and is able to optimize yield while not adversely affecting protein and quality. He usually applies a blanket fertilizer to wheat, feed barley and flax. He says they have seen a response from wheat to variable rate fertilizer, but it is not as consistent as other crops.

“Our land is quite variable in this area,” he says. “We have a lot of rolling land and different soil types and it is also quite spread out — over three municipalities. Perhaps if we farmed in an area where everything was flat and one soil type, variable rate wouldn’t have the same value.

“But in our experience we saw we could apply higher rates of fertilizer where it would do the most good,” says McDonald. “Overall I believe we use slightly less fertilizer and yields are higher. We are comfortable with VRT at this point, but it is a developing science and we may extend it to more of the farm and more crops in the future.” †

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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